misanthropy: a short short story

September 22nd, 2010

Sometimes the smallest interaction seems a chore. The very thought of making a phone call is exhausting. Pick up the phone, listen to the monotony of the dial tone, think of all the things I need to say to the person on the other side. The words drone on in my head, like the dial tone. The train of imaginary conversation makes me vaguely ill.

I put down the phone and glance at my inbox. So many unanswered missives, so many people awaiting a response. I open one e-mail and read the friendly salutation, the banter, the questions, questions, questions, like so many hooks pulling and poking at my skin. I think of what I should say. “Yes, that sounds great.” “Certainly, that could work.” “Would you be amenable to… ?” It all sounds disjointed, false. One paragraph segways into another like a loping stitch that’s gone awry. The words melt away and I think of what I want to say. “No, fuck off.” “I suppose I could do that if I could drag myself out of doors.” “I’d much rather not have to deal with you or anyone else at the moment. Please go away.” My hands freeze above the keyboard. I can’t type a damn thing.

I’m hungry. I can’t be bothered to prepare anything, so I’ll need to buy something to eat. This means putting on clothes, brushing my hair, walking out the front door and going outside. I dread the myriad of meaningless interactions I am sure to have. The hallway is empty, but the elevator carries a passenger who smiles and says “Good morning!” The rules of etiquette require a response, so I raise my eyes briefly and gingerly pull the corners of my mouth upward. “Morning,” I respond. I hope he doesn’t notice that my hair needs a wash. I hope he doesn’t ask me how my morning’s been, or where I’m off to or any other pointless attempts at small talk. I stop holding my breath when the elevator hits the lobby. He nods and exits happily, a spring in his step and a doltish grin plastered on his face. My relief is short-lived, as now the office manager smiles her hello, and the maintenance man greets me with a genuine smile and an earnest “Good morning!” I half-smile and mumble “hi” and “‘morning” as I try not to flee to the front door.

The cold air hits my face with a sting and a slap, the sun so dazzling bright the world looks white. I squint and try to look down as I walk. The corner store seems miles away, a treacherous journey with people everywhere nodding, smiling, talking.

I reach the shop, pick a sandwich and get in line. Here comes the next charade, a puppet show in which I must perform, time and again.

She’ll say
“Hi! How’re you?”

I’ll say
“Fine, how’re you?”

She’ll respond
“Very well, thanks!” or “Good, thanks!” depending on her knowledge of grammar.

I’ll say
“So, um, just this,” and place my sandwich on the counter.

She’ll say
“Will that be all?” as if she cared what I buy or don’t buy (she doesn’t, I know she’s just following her manager’s script.)

“Yes, thanks,” I’ll say, and with some effort, turn up the corners of my mouth, as if to say “I’m a good customer, I know that’s a stupid question, but I know you have to ask it, and I know I’m not supposed to be annoyed by it, so here’s a smile to show you that I understand and empathize with your plight even though I wonder what sort of hell it must be like to have the same conversation with 300 customers every… single… fucking… day.”

She’ll say
“Great. That’ll be $4.95. Would you like a bag?”

I’ll hand her a credit card, decline the bag.
“No, thanks.” (Meaning: “I know you’re supposed to ask if I want a bag, but you’re really waiting for me to say I don’t, because I’m supposed to care about the environment, and it costs your boss money to give out bags willy-nilly, so if I actually take the bag you’ll look at me disapprovingly ever so subtly. You’ll glance at me, frown, and cast your eyes down furtively. Then the tone of your voice will sour just a little. And you’ll wonder what sort of asshole would want to clutter landfills and strangle seagulls with a plastic bag, and all for a fucking sandwich.”)

She’ll smile and say
“Great! Just sign here.”

I’ll dutifully sign.

She’ll ask
“Would you like your receipt?” (Meaning: “There’s a line and I really need to deal with the other customers. Just deal with the $4.95, will you? It’s not like we’ll accept returns on a sandwich.”)

I’ll say
“No thanks,” and raise the corners of my mouth again.

“Greaaaaat,” she’ll say, elongating the word as though it were one enormous melismatic syllable.

The show ends when she says “Have a nice day!” her pitch rising like a happy ending to a saccharine film.

I’ll dutifully respond “You too!” and match her tone almost exactly (though perhaps just an octave lower).

I’m next in line. Thinking of the upcoming performance, I sigh. Audibly. Glancing at the refrigerator case, a can of coconut juice tempts me.

I’m up. The juice isn’t worth disrupting the scene.

I must play my part and return to my cave.

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